"A Matter of Self-Respect"

Ninotchka Rosca works for the rights of women migrants and against human trafficking

By Alexandra Innes | 2005-07-01 12:00:00

It's mid-afternoon in Manila one day in the late 1950s. A small group of men and women sits in a semi-circle in a huge garden luxuriant with roses and other flowers. Before them stands Ninotchka Rosca, a normally shy child of seven. She reads to them from a comic book in Tagalog, the national language. Ninotchka has been reading well since the age of five, when she was told not to touch the books in the library in her home belonging to her older sister, a university student.

Ninotchka is standing in her parents' garden. The warm wind on her face seems to set a rhythm to the sounds issuing from her mouth. The adults - servants from the neighbourhood, including Ninotchka's own nanny - pay for this treat with their loose change, which seems like a lot of money to a young child. Their eyes transfixed, they look down, or far away into the distance, the magic of the words they cannot read themselves transporting them to another world. After almost an hour has passed, they resume their work for the well-to-do families. Siesta time is over, and the bosses will be waking.

That was many years ago. Today Ninotchka Rosca is an accomplished writer living in exile in the United States. "I took from these sessions that prose has beat, has rhythm," she says of her afternoons in the garden as a child.

In 1993 she won the American Book Award for Twice Blessed, a satirical novel about the Philippines, featuring a pair of arrogant and greedy rulers, one of whom collects shoes. But Rosca the writer has another, more imperative identity: Rosca the activist. She is spokesperson for the Purple Rose Campaign, which works internationally against the traffic in women, and a longtime activist for GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action), the Philippines' pre-eminent women's rights organization.

Early Foundation

Ninotchka's future as an activist was shaped by her time at the University of the Philippines-Manila, where she went to study comparative literature at the age of 16. There she met Jose Maria Sison, an assistant professor of English and a Communist political and social activist; his philosophy helped her answer many of the questions she had about her country. "It provided an explanation of why some people were so powerful - a certain class, a certain sector of the population. So powerful they had everything, but when you meet them, you kind of wonder why," she said. "It was only because they had money. They owned most of the property in the Philippines. So how did they come about owning just about everything in the country?"

Ninotchka became part of the underground resistance to the Marcos dictatorship, working for five years to raise money from wealthy Filipinos opposed to the regime; getting people in danger out of Manila; and writing articles on abuses such as the detention camps. At the time of the declaration of martial law in 1972, she was arrested and detained for six months.

"There was no rhyme or reason for why you were picked up, or why you were kept in prison and how long you stayed there," she said. "There was no [international] voice raised in protest. We had to struggle that one out by ourselves." Five years later, she was due to be brought before a military tribunal. "I don't mind being charged, but this is a military tribunal, and they don't really care about rules of evidence," she recalled.

A US cultural attaché suggested she take up a fellowship in a writers' program at Iowa University. She accepted, and eventually applied for political asylum in the United States.

International Spokesperson

Today, Ninotchka has an apartment in New York, but she also works out of San Jose, California. "I think of myself as someone who fell accidentally into these things, and I can't get out. I am ethically, morally, psychologically unable to," she sighed. "Sometimes when I get back to New York and I'm looking at how I live, I mutter to myself, I can't go on living like this. And then there's a phone call: 'There's a woman in trouble.' OK - here we go again. I'm always on the road. I really don't have a personal life. People come to me and call me at all hours of the day." Her constant message to other Filipinas is: Please be engaged, because we need more activists. She encourages them to document their experiences, write down their thoughts, express their aspirations and engage in public discourse and public action.

As the Purple Rose Campaign international spokesperson against the traffic of women, Ninotchka focuses on mail-order brides ("marriage is not a business"), as well as the conventional sex trade, where prostitution hides behind such euphemisms as "bar girl" and "entertainer." Given the significance of these issues, she deplores a tendency she sees in the United States for the women's movement to devolve into either academic feminist theory, or personal concerns such as sexuality. "In New York I went to the National Organization for Women," she said, "and I brought up the issue of the mail order brides. And they said, 'We don't deal with international issues. We only deal with domestic issues.' And I'm saying: Where do you think these women end up - here!

"It's become so narrow. I'd like to see them become more militant, to really advocate for the power of women, not only in government, but every aspect of life."

The Philippines is the second largest labor-exporting country in the world. Moreover, as a University of the Philippines-Diliman study on migrant workers and their environments states: "Females dominate overwhelmingly, in the professional and technical fields as well as in the unprotected service sector, which is constituted primarily by domestic helpers and entertainers. In Japan, 90% of documented migrant workers are in the entertainment industry. The economic significance of overseas employment is one reason the Philippine government continues to support its human-power export policy, despite the abuses inflicted on many migrant workers, especially domestic helpers and entertainers."

This is not the only worry Ninotchka has. "For people like me who work with GABRIELA Philippines, the increasing frequency with which women organizers are being killed by the military and paramilitary elements in the Philippines is quite alarming. We've had 11 GABRIELA members killed already," she said. "When I was there last time, (August 2004), the day before I left the Philippines, the municipal co-coordinator of the GABRIELA Women's Party (in Santa Rosa) was killed. She was 50 years old with three children.

"That this is happening at a time when the Manila government announced its determination to export one million females every year heightens our apprehension. It is time that we put an end to all this constant attack, persecution, indifference and murder. We can only succeed if we remain in organized resistance to oppression."

"If you consider our history," she continued quietly, "everything that can be done to a people has been done to us. And so for us the struggle is a matter of self-respect. It is a matter of affirming our dignity. And to the degree that we continue to struggle, we have already won." Ninotchka believes it's time for women to step forward with their perspective of what a truly socialist society should be. "I think society should be centred around the principle of preserving the species. Go back to the woman-centred society," she said, referring to the way it used to be in pre-colonial Philippines. "If we look at society like that, then all of these issues about the environment, the children and so on, will be resolved. Because everything that threatens the survival of the species, we will do away with."

Freedom to choose

Ninotchka is not alone in her indignation. Beth Atcheson of the Canadian Women's Legal Education and Action Fund notes that every hour, another 100 Filipino workers -- 60 to 70 of them women--are forced by poverty to work overseas. "Never have women of the Philippines been asked to be as selfless," Ninotchka said sadly. She urges Filipinas to actively engage in the realization of their vision of a just, peaceful society. "Only by doing so can we come to a point in our history where migration will no longer be a matter of necessity, but a true choice."

Ninotchka's first choice, if there were more activists to take her place, is to spend her time writing. "I think of myself as a storyteller-writer," she says. "In the old-style Philippines we had poets, because we had a very strong moral tradition. That's really how I see myself. As a revolutionary, I think I have a very small role, just a supporting role, for the women of the Philippines. They are the real revolutionaries: women who have been working at transforming Filipino society for 13 years, and they're still there. Nobody knows them, they're not famous, they're not even operating under their real names. Those are the real revolutionaries."

Alexandra Innes is a journalism student in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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